Addressing America's Death Problem

Addressing America's Death Problem

Hannes Schwandt talking to colleagues

Research by Hannes Schwandt finds inequalities in life expectancy are starker in the U.S. than in Europe.Americans have shorter lives than similarly situated Europeans, even in the richest areas, according to new Northwestern University research coauthored by School of Education and Social Policy professor Hannes Schwandt. At the same time, longevity of Black Americans has been catching up, and the life expectancy gap between Black and white Americans fell by 48.9%.

The paper, “Inequality in Mortality between Black and White Americans by Age, Place and Cause, and in Comparison to Europe, 1990-2018,” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The researchers examined age-specific mortality trends and racial gaps in life expectancy in rich and poor areas in the US and compared them with mortality in six European countries between 1990 and 2018 using Vital Statistics data on each single death occurring across all country during this time period.

“It is astonishing how much stronger longevity gains were in European countries since 1990, and that is true even if we focus on the richest U.S. areas,” said Schwandt, assistant professor of human development and social policy and a fellow at the University’s Institute for Policy Research. Schwandt conducted this research with Princeton University economist Janet Currie and SESP undergraduate Beatrice Chao, who is working on her honors thesis. Overall, the project involved 26 coauthors from 15 research institutions across the US and Europe.

The study found inequalities in life expectancy are starker in the U.S. than in Europe. In 1990, white Americans and Europeans in rich areas had similar overall life expectancy, while life expectancy for white Americans in poor areas was lower. But since then, even rich white Americans have lost ground relative to Europeans.

Meanwhile, the gap in life expectancy between Black Americans and Europeans decreased by 8.3%. Within the United States, the racial longevity gap strongly declined. Black Americans lived seven years fewer than whites in 1990. But by 2018, that number dropped to 3.6 years.

“This is a great success story, even though a dramatic and unacceptable life expectancy gap remains,” Schwandt said. “We have to make sure to understand better what has been driving the mortality improvements among Black Americans in order to further narrow, and ultimately fully close, the longevity gap.”

Read the whole story on Northwestern News.

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By Erin Karter
Last Modified: 10/14/21